Mark Argent
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Politics:: articles since 2015 General Election
Candidates and financial exclusion

27 August 2015, first published in Liberal Democrat Voice

I’ve seen a number of comments recently about the financial cost of being a candidate. That is particularly sharp with people standing for parliament, but not limited to them.

As a party, we try to take diversity seriously. This is about justice and Liberal Democrat values. It’s pragmatic, in that we’re all diminished if we casually discard the talents of people from disadvantaged groups. There is also a bigger challenge: the changes we push for in society have to be made within the party and in our choice of candidates. Addressing problems this creates may not be easy, but is a first step to bringing change more widely. Addressing any problems this creates also helps us find ways to address barriers to change more widely.

One of the knotty points is around wealth.

The targeting of seats is unavoidable under our present electoral system, so there is no way round the fact that a high proportion of party’s resources has to be directed to winnable seats.

Away from target seats, the financial situation on candidates can be really difficult, especially when local parties are small and have limited resources. Yet it is also important to fight these seats, both to build up the party where it is presently less strong, and to be serious about being a potential party of government. I’ve seen guidance that potential candidates should not be asked what they can contribute financially to their campaign, as this discriminates against the less wealthy. But most parliamentary candidates work very hard in an election campaign and the pressure to end up putting more personal resources into the campaign can be intense — even if that pressure begins with them rather than anyone else. Anecdotes include someone saying they hoped there wouldn’t be another election soon as they had been self-funding and were more-or-less wiped out, and an agent asking the candidate to provide the deposit two days before the nomination form was to go in as if this was a perfectly reasonable request (and failing to register for their regional party’s deposit guarantee scheme).

A sign of change was Dominic Mathon’s recent article on LibDem Voice about an Access Fund for the London Assembly elections, but there is more to do.

This burden falls particularly hard on candidates who are unemployed or struggling financially. Yet these are voices that need to be heard — economic regeneration for the country hangs on reaching these groups of people.

As a chilling example, another candidate congratulated me on my campaign website, but then explained that, as she was unemployed, she couldn’t afford to have one herself. A few days later, she congratulated me on a radio interview she’d heard. There’s no reason to think she’s less capable of doing a radio interview than me. How far had the undermining that came from not being able to afford a website hit her confidence, hurting her and her campaign? A little money could have helped both.

Struggling financially is soul-rotting, and something people often seek to hide (for very odd reasons). We need MPs who know what this is like. Neither “trickledown” nor “wealth redistribution” (nor benefit cuts) have solved the problem. In the Labour world, Jeremy Corbyn has suggested grants for aspiring MPs from less wealthy backgrounds, which recognises the problem, but also risks perpetuating it by not engaging with the bigger picture. “Being the change we want to see” means seeking ways to help people who would struggle with the cost of being a candidate. It is both a matter of diversity inside the party, and helping us think about ways of delivering genuine improvement for those at the bottom of the economic pile.